ECMS - Dr. Bianca Gonzalez, AMPAworks

Posted on May 16, 2024

Economic Champions Mini Series - Dr. Bianca Gonzalez, AMPAworks

This is the Talk CNY Economic Champions miniseries, presented by NBT Bank, a podcast by CenterState CEO, Central New York's premier leadership and economic development organization. This series will shine a light on local businesses making an impact in our community and driving our regional economy forward, whether it's new jobs, company milestones, business expansions, investments in operations, or DEI initiatives. Join us as we celebrate CNY's economic champions. Hello and welcome to the Talk CNY Mini Series Economic Champions. I'm your host, Kate Hammer, and also a local business coach. And today I will be joined by Dr. Bianca Gonzalez of AMPAworks. We're going to be learning all about who she is, what her company is doing, and today is really exciting because the reason for this mini series is really to focus on the joy and the excitement and all the anticipation that we're experiencing in Central New York, across Upstate New York as we come into this new era of unprecedented growth. So part of that is hearing about the individual stories that make up all of this momentum. And so Bianca, welcome. Thanks for joining us today.

I'm glad to be here, Kate. Thank you so much for inviting me to talk about some of the things we're doing at AMPAworks.

Yes, yes, absolutely. So let's start by just getting to know you a little bit more. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and share with us your history and what has led you to found this amazing company?

Great. Yeah, absolutely. So growing up, I grew up in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey and to a family full of doctors and nurses. And while I was growing up, I worked in some of my relatives clinics, mostly doing supply chain and as an 11-year-old, and that was a total pain in the butt. Fast forward later after college, I went to University of Pennsylvania to study nursing, and my first job was in the operating room at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. And supply chain there was also pretty crazy in the operating rooms. And then I worked at other hospitals on the West Coast as a nurse practitioner later on in orthopedic surgery. And some of my surgeries would certainly get delayed because we didn't have the right tools to perform surgery, and we certainly didn't have the right instruments in some cases or implants. So what I wanted to build is something for me and my patients as well as my coworkers to better visibly see where the supplies in a medical supply chain are at any given time.

So what AMPAworks does, it's a camera system that uses small smart AI cameras to observe and to show where the supplies are from the truck to the warehouse, to the hospital shelves, and have full visibility and observability within medical supply chain later in life. I became an engineer. I've worked for Apple and Datadog, I went to Georgia Tech so that I could be able to build this company and lead our tech team into actually building some of the more technical computer vision as well as the robotic elements of our hardware. So really excited to have some of our products and move to New York State from California with this idea. And we moved here for the 43 North competition in 2023. We were one of the winners, and that gave us a lot of connections into the region where we're now deployed in several hospitals and pharmacies.

Very cool. So would you say that it was your experiences on the ground at work that led you to recognize this as a problem to be solved?

Absolutely. Working in surgery, it's such a big barrier to care for a patient when you don't have the right screw or the drill that you need. Let's say you're doing a hip replacement and you just don't have the right size. Sometimes we would have a size above or a size below of a specific screw, like a four millimeter, but we would need a 4.5 millimeter, and that would always be kind of a pain in the butt to try to scramble around the supply closets and the inner core of the OR to try to find the exact thing you need for that surgery. And sometimes the patient's already intubated and they're already on the table wide open and you don't have that specific supply. So solving a problem that I used to have.

Yeah. So it sounds like not just an inconvenience, but potentially a danger.

Yeah, absolutely. We've certainly had things happen, and I've seen it happen in some of the most critical surgeries like neurosurgery, spine surgery, cardiac surgery, where they may not have the right heart valve size to implant into a patient, or maybe they need a size slightly above or below, and it was not stocked because maybe the inventory people were unavailable to stock. There's now an enormous labor shortage in healthcare, specifically in regions that don't have large metropolitan centers. So it's always difficult to get labor to restock shelves and to double check that things are on the shelf for the day of surgery.

Okay, cool. Now explain to me and to our listeners, I'm sure many have not had that experience of working in a hospital. This is news to me. So I would've guessed that these sorts of items, these parts and pieces needed for a surgery would be accounted for beforehand that would be part of a policy or procedure. So can you speak to that in a global way? Is that not typical or just depends on which hospital?

Yeah. In normal surgical cases, there is a pick list where we will pick the items we need for the surgery the next day, the night before or the day before. However, some items are reused or recycled, re-sterilized on that same day, so it's not a hundred percent guarantee that they'll make it up the exact time for surgery. Sometimes there are consigned items, where there's a rep from a medical device company or a rep from a pharmaceutical company that would have to bring in the exact implants, and sometimes those trays get lost or sometimes those implants get lost in transit or they're in a different location or different hospital that specific day. So there's a lot that can unfortunately go wrong. And then the other thing that can happen is that surgery is really unpredictable. Sometimes we have to pivot, just like in business, we pivot to new ideas. In surgery, sometimes you'll open up the patient and you'll see something that you didn't expect to see, and then you'll have to pivot and use a totally new instrument set. Some of those things were really a huge burden to the supply chain teams in surgery centers and in hospitals as well as the nurses and the doctors that were operating on the patient. So it is currently a huge problem, and it was a huge problem to me.

Yeah, yeah. So you noticed this and then you mentioned that you went into a graduate program specifically to develop this idea out further and get it to a place where it would work the way that you wanted to. Can you speak a little bit more to that process in particular?

Absolutely. So I started this company actually in business school. I went to Wharton for my MBA and there was an entrepreneurship class. I was already an entrepreneur prior to going to business school. I was one of the co-founders of TruCare 24, and I was doing mostly the operations and I was the head of operations there. But when I went back to school, I was really interested in entrepreneurship and starting a new company myself. And one of the problems that I wanted to fix, and so did some of my classmates who were doctors and pharmacists, I wanted to fix this problem was the supply chain issues in hospitals. So when we had the opportunity to actually prototype a device, we did that for a student project, we got funded by Dorm Room Fund was our first investor institutionally as well as when we graduated, we got further funding from Cedar-Sinai Hospital as well as 500 startups since they backed my previous company, TruCare 24.

So I knew a lot of the partners there. From there, we started to launch our cameras on our app and then develop new products. On top of that, we would grant feature requests and customizations to our initial customers and explore with them some of the things that they would need in a supply chain and a full observability and visibility suite. So we were really, at that time, the founding team. We were early hands on the ground, really close to our customers building while we were exploring the customer as well. And then I went back to school later on seeing that there was a huge shortage of technical talent, especially we were starting this company in Los Angeles when we were at Cedar-Sinai, engineers were really hard to come by. A lot of the bigger companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin in Los Angeles and Google moved in that summer as well.

They had a lot of engineers, but in terms of smaller companies, it was really hard to recruit. So what I did was I went back to school, I went back to Georgia Tech and I learned how to code and also developed some initial prototypes of our Gen One and Gen Two cameras. So two of the versions I'm super proud of, and we're now launching our version three cameras with a more robust hardware team as well as software and computer vision teams. So our problems were really solved by having me understand how to recruit engineers, how to incentivize and how to coach engineers, how to talk to engineers as well by becoming one myself.

Yeah, well, if you're willing to put in the work. I love that you said you had a difficult time recruiting, and so you went and did it yourself. You self-recruited, we love this. And also that exposure and being in that environment, it makes a ton of sense. Why now it might be much easier to do that, to have that language and that understanding. So that's really interesting. You have a very interesting variety of expertise on your staff. Can you speak a little bit to that?

Yeah, so we have four teams at AMPAworks, and I kind of go back and forth between these teams helping out wherever I can. If we have a need and we don't have enough people on a certain team, I'll just jump in. And we are very collaborative in that we have all hands meetings every Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So the four teams on the technical side are a software team, our backend and our front end. And then we have computer vision team as well. So that's our AI team that creates all the new algorithms for detecting and counting the inventory. And we also have our hardware team, which we have in house, and that team is responsible for creating new features on the device, maintaining the device, and testing the new devices that we're coming out with, including the mounting systems. Our fourth team is our growth team, which is comprised of marketing and sales, and we are very, very collaborative. We have a lot of interdisciplinary meetings with all of us on the meeting and giving updates and just bouncing ideas off of each other.

Sounds like a lot of fun actually.

Yeah. Yeah. We're a small startup, but we're very, very agile and we're always willing to pitch in. I love how my team always wants to learn what the other teams are doing within the bigger team. So we're almost at the point where everyone on the team is a little bit competent in every single aspect of the team where we're almost cross-trained, which is a really great place to be. So when there are shortages of there aren't enough engineers for a certain project, an engineer who might know a little bit about it can learn more and have the opportunity to help the other team out.

Yes, I love that. It's almost like that ability to consult with each other or actually to know how to phrase or which are the right questions to ask. So yeah, that sounds really exciting for an environment. So tell us a little bit about your customer base. Who are you used to working with? I know we have this example of hospitals.

Yeah. Our first customers back when we were still in California were pediatric clinics and urgent care clinics, mostly in the vaccine space, looking at refrigerated items. And this was pre-pandemic, back in 2018, when we launched some of our version one cameras, and we would stick them in fridges, let them just run all night and see what came out of those images. And believe it or not, our cameras were quite optimized for the refrigerator environment. I know that sounds counterintuitive because when you see cameras today, a lot of them are optimized for shelf mounting and for area mounting for surveillance. But our cameras did quite well in the fridge, given their size and their battery constraints and the need for accelerometers and motion sensors, things like that, were built in the camera early, early on because of where the cameras were needing to mount. So that really informed a lot of the features on the device itself that we needed very, very early on.

And we had a great framework about different environments where the camera could possibly be, because we started in one of the most difficult environments to put a camera, which was a refrigerator. Later on, we onboarded surgery centers and medical device companies because those companies both have an interest in talking to each other and sometimes the current software to reorder things, it just doesn't allow for that collaboration between the vendors and the hospital themselves. So we have a direct connection where they can see and visibly see things on the shelf for surgery, like hip replacements, breast implants, we've monitored cardiac valves. So we have a lot of data sets in our data room for computer vision algorithms because of the early customers with all of the vaccine inventory they have and all of the surgical inventory they have. And we have our own proprietary data sets because I personally have spent thousands of hours actually getting these data sets, taking photos on my iPhone or whatever camera I had at the time, thousands of images of the front of the box, the back of the box, the top of the box, the bottom of the box, all six sides of a box.

Having that now, we have generative AI where we can skip that process or make it a lot more efficient so we don't have to take 10,000 images of a box anymore. But in the early days, back in 2018, that's what we needed to do to make computer vision work back then. And now there's so many great AI models that can reduce the time to train a model. So we're really grateful that we hung in there, and now we've got these great algorithms that do that for us a little bit better than what we used to do very manually.

Okay. Very cool. Could you give our listeners just a really quick understanding of some of the basics of machine learning in this context, or how was this labeling happening?

So the way that you obtain a dataset, I kind of just described it. You take a bunch of photos of an object from different angles with different lighting and different backgrounds. So in the early days, I would have to move the box slightly. Me and my head of computer vision, Trevor, we would move this box on carpet, on wood, on metal. So we'd get different backgrounds, and then we would have to flip the box different sides and take a photo of it about 500 times in just one box. So that was obtaining the actual data set, which can be very, I'd say right now it's still very cumbersome to obtain proprietary data sets like that of medical supplies. (You) can't really just scrape that off of the internet and have a robust data set of the flu vaccine. Then you actually have to annotate and label the data.

And so I would go in me and maybe an intern and my computer vision team would label and actually label each box that is in that photo, so thousands of images multiplied by multiple boxes in the image, and then we would train the model. And so that would bring us into a good understanding, and then we would reinforce that and retrain it over and over again if we realized that we would need to increase the accuracy of that model and get more photos of it. So it's a process. It's a really long process, but we have made great strides in improving the process of obtaining a data set and training the AI model.

Yeah, I'm glad that you actually broke it into that level of detail because I think for many people when we hear these terms like artificial intelligence, like this app or this company uses AI. Cool. What does that actually mean? And how are these things developed? How is the dataset developed? And in your case, as you described, it's very original to your offer and it's not something that you can find in any easy way or quickly buy or upload, whatever. So I think it's so important to have that understanding of the work that goes into it, and then also your work in developing that for better accuracy or better efficiency as a company. Cool. Thank you for getting into that. That's awesome. Are there any other features like this of your company or moments like this where you have moved into a new generation? I know you've talked about your cameras having three iterations now. Is that right?

Yeah, we are on our version three cameras, and they are already being tested in our lab today. We got boards back and manufactured. So they'll be deployed in some of our customers in Upstate New York very soon.

So exciting. And you mentioned Upstate New York, so this might be a good time to transition to talking about what's happening here. You ended up in Buffalo because of this 43 North competition and winning that, which by the way, congratulations. That's tremendous. Thank you. What has your experience been like being in Upstate New York? What is your vibe or your sense of the excitement around economic growth and what people are envisioning into the future?

So I've only lived in big cities in my entire life. I grew up in northern New Jersey in a very small suburb called Livingston, New Jersey. But after that, I've lived in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and it just doesn't compare. I really love Upstate New York and the people here are very different from people all over, especially in large metropolitan areas. It is very warm, it feels very neighborly. You actually get to know people when you live here and you get to integrate yourself and your business, collaborate with other businesses. Everyone here wants to make this region better and is very, very excited to collaborate on certain projects, especially with innovation and some of the things that are going on in the region with the government being involved and state governments like Empire State Development Group, putting funding into things like Micron and bringing manufacturing back to Upstate New York.

So we're really excited to be part of that new ecosystem and very forward and innovative. It almost reminds me of what people describe Silicon Valley being in the early, early days where there's just a few companies to kick it off and maybe one or two venture funds like 43 North, and it now is growing where there are much more venture funds coming into the state. There are a lot of angel investors or people of the region wanting to angel, invest in startups, and especially in AI, robotics, hardware, and you see a lot of manufacturing coming back into Upstate New York. So we're really excited to be part of that ecosystem in general. And we do manufacture our cameras here in New York and assemble them in our offices in Buffalo.

Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned that. That's exciting. As you look into the future, into the next several years, what are your hopes for AMPAworks? Where are you headed? What's on the horizon?

Yeah, so some news, we newly entered the pharmacy space end of last year. This year we started launching our cameras in our first inpatient pharmacies. We moved to specialty and retail pharmacies later in Q1. So we're really excited about entering new markets and seeing value of our cameras make a huge difference in pharmacies as well as the surgery centers and hospitals and clinics that we've already been in. And it's just been an amazing success. People are seeing really great value from our cameras, seeing that they can just take their iPhone and see their inventory using our app and making sure that all the things are stocked in real time. They could even be at home in bed looking through their inventory. So we've gotten great reviews for people that, especially with the weather in the wintertime, and you can't necessarily go into the office and order things, you can do it through our app or you can at least monitor so that you know when to reorder things, even if you're not physically located within the office.

So we've seen that across all of pharmacies as well as the surgery centers and hospitals that we've been in with both on the East Coast and the West Coast. So we're so excited about entering this new market. We also have launched a few new products. We do have scanning kiosks, so for pharmacies that want to count pills or for surgery centers and medical device companies that want to count things that are in the sterilization process to make sure that everything comes in and out of sterilization properly. We do have scanning kiosks that with our computer vision algorithms in them, so they can still count their inventory in and out of sterilization. And some other news is I wouldn't be here without mentors. I do like to mentor, especially medical folks, nursing students. So I will be an adjunct faculty at University of Buffalo this year starting this semester. So really excited to teach students about entrepreneurship, innovation and AI and be part of the Dean's Council to do that on behalf of the nursing school. So really excited that they've invited me onto this very, very special role.

That is really exciting. What we imagine when we go into a program as a student can be one thing, but I love that you're entering into this space and opening up minds to what else might be possible and how that career as imagined might shift a little bit and perhaps into that area of technology and new ideas for innovation. Maybe we will have nurses seeing or making another observation that will add on to what AMPAworks is doing 15 years from now. So that's really tremendous. Thank you so much for spending this time together today and sharing your story. It's super exciting and for telling us about your background, what's going on with AMPAworks and how you've enjoyed spending your time operating a business in Buffalo.

Yeah, it's just been an incredible journey. In the one year that we've been here, we felt so welcomed and we had so many synergies and so many collaborations with different businesses and different other companies that in the startup space and the innovation space, and a lot of the universities here have just been amazing with their initiatives to try to get students involved in entrepreneurship. We are so excited to recruit interns from some of the smartest interns from UB and RIT, Cornell. You have so many great universities in this ecosystem, and so many great folks coming out of university trying to get their foot into technology. So I'm very bullish about this economic growth and keeping people in Upstate New York who may go through the university system as well.

Yes. Ooh, yes. Retain that talent. We love it. Is there a way, or what is the best way I should ask that a listener can find you? Maybe they're interested and partnering. Maybe they just want to stay in touch or keep track of what AMPAworks is going to do next?

Absolutely. They can always follow our site on LinkedIn. We do have a LinkedIn website, and we have a normal marketing website, where they could sign up for updates. And we do have a newsletter that comes out every month so they can keep up to date with new products, new implementations, or just new ideas. And then the third way is they can just email us at If they ever want to talk to us about collaborating or email me directly, I get back to emails usually within 24 hours, and very excited to talk to anybody in New York state that has any ideas about how to innovate in this region and how to grow economically in the region as well.

Love that. And that's a great man, 24-hour turnaround for a founder and CEO. I try. We love it. Thank you again so much for being here, Bianca.

Yeah, absolutely. Really enjoyed talking to you about the economic development and some of the things that are going on in this region. I'm so excited about it and so excited that I moved here. I'm really grateful for the community that's been helping me and my company really get involved.

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